Robert Morris: The Perceiving Body
Musée d’art moderne et contemporain
rue Fernand Léger, Saint-Priest-en-Jarez
July 1 to November 1, 2020
By JOSEPH NECHVATAL July, 2020
Saint-Étienne’s Musée d’art moderne et contemporain’s Robert Morris exhibition The Perceiving Body gives the impression of Morris as mostly a crisp analytic artist of literalism and lucidity. This air of clarity was apparently important to the artist, as he self-curated this semi-retrospective with co-curator Jeffrey Weiss before his death in 2018. And I can understand this preference, as Morris was known for being emotionally prickly about claims that his often hyper-masculine anti-expressive art was sometimes seen as a partial-pastiche of other artists’. Notwithstanding the validity of such assertions, I have long been attracted to his complicated aesthetic output as a conceptual art theorist of implicit anthropomorphic theatricality.
Morris was a proficient writer who set up for himself conceptual investigations about how flighty vision and movement can connect to bodily sensations by better understanding the clarity of form (excellent motives, but not closely related). Indeed, this contradictory aesthetic is hard to inhabit imaginatively in our climate of invisible viral connected change.
Morris, as self-represented here at his minimal art zenith, shared the same delusions of defiance through simplicity that many of his post-Abstract Expressionist generation held—thinking it was primary to put forth anti-expressive acts of making and beholding. In the process they perpetuated quite a few false universalizations out of structural singularities. But if one can begin by overlooking the effervescent madcap macho docu-fiction hyperbole of his self-mythologizing Labyrinths—Voice—Blind Time Poster (1974) by accepting what Morris said about his early childhood escapist-imaginative experiences as central to his (really allegorical) art making, Morris may emerge as a much wider-ranging conceptual-minimal artist of assorted sensibilities. That’s not to deny he could also be an acerbic art critic capable of effeminizing critical antagonists and that he displayed the perils of self-absorption. Is he not almost an icon of white male detached and privileged belligerence? Yet Morris is still an interesting theorist of process post-minimalism (repetition, permutation, chance) that should not be cavalierly canceled out. This is evidenced by his collected writings (always sharp in descriptive efficiency) that were brought together by art historian Nena Tsouti-Schillinger in Have I Reasons: Work and Writings, 1993-2007.
At stake in much of Morris’s theory and critical writing is the nature of perception and the definition of art. Though it doesn’t sound like much today in our current crammed rhizome era of connectivity, Morris wrote astute assessments of reductive form as temporal in a series of Artforum essays, beginning with “Notes on Sculpture, Part I” (1966). In this series he sketched out the potential virtual aspect of art. He saw his own works as propositional in nature, each object representing an experiment, a ‘what-if’ proposition—and that appeal is what makes Morris a viractual art theorist par excellence. So, regardless of his very many shortcomings, Morris is still able to offer a surfeit of stimulus to current post-conceptual art practice—granted the necessity of chunky caveats.
The excellent (but overly limited) Robert Morris: The Perceiving Body—co-produced with the Mudam Contemporary Art Museum of Luxembourg and supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art (here co-co-curated with Alexandre Quoi of the Musée d’art moderne et contemporain de Saint-Étienne)—contains seven extensive rooms, each containing a single installation or a group of somewhat related big but non-monumental objects capable of engaging with the space of the room. The works breath beautifully in the vast space of the Musée. Also, of less interest, is a short film on the theme of natural factuality complicated by the māyā of mirroring, where Morris is filmed holding a mirror and moving it around outdoors in the winter.
Despite all that, I cannot uncritically salute the Morris/Weiss choice of including mostly highfalutin minimal sculptures here: the very work that helped sink non-expressive abstract art into the zombie passivity and sloth it is in now. How can an aesthetic that exalts both gestalt phenomenology and disorientating illusion serve our viral conscious human need to reconnect us with terrible tiny things we would rather ignore? Their slim choice represents only the middle period of an extraordinarily versatile and exciting career in which Morris, by first embracing non-expressive ambition, created movement works for the Judson Dance Theater, performed in others’ dances (from 1956 to 1962 he was married to the venerable visceral dancer/choreographer Simone Forti), made performance art, land art, prints, graphic text pieces, audio artworks, extravagant paintings, blind drawings, a cluster of earthworks and proposed an exuberant war memorial: Scattered Atomic Waste (1970) using the original atomic bomb casings from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That same year, as co-chair of Art Strike Against Racism, War, and Oppression, Morris spectacularized an art strike by shuttering his Whitney Recent Works exhibition of spill pieces early, so to, as he said, “underscore the need I and others feel to shift priorities at this time from art making and viewing to unified action within the art community against the intensifying conditions of repression, war and racism in this country.”
Eleven years later Morris created a significant work in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia: the politically-powerful Restless Sleepers/Atomic Shroud (1981), which is essentially a tricked-out death bed. Though Morris was long an anti-war political activist (and some sort of art world pro-feminist), his prior abstract art, as represented in The Perceiving Body, rests in a state of oblivious vacancy that reminds me of what Gilles Deleuze said about abstract art in The Logic of Sensation: that “it has pure hands, but it has no hands.” With an exuberant taste for Thanatos theatricality, Restless Sleepers/Atomic Shroud’s punk sangfroid social-political post-minimal aesthetic (interesting, atypical, underrated) radically engaged me and my generation, particularly when Morris continued to depict other lacerating visionary suggestions of nuclear apocalypse with his Psychomachia, Firestorm and Hydrocal works, whose love of artificiality is also obvious. (These works did not receive positive notices from the art world power critics: tisk tisk.)
None of this work is even hinted at in the show. Which is a bit like only watching the second season of Homeland.
Nor is early-60s Fluxus-period Morris, when he produced some major meta works related to post-Duchampian conceptualism by showing how artworks can be real and/or potential thing-activities. Though the show begins with a photograph of Morris in his coffin-like Untitled (Box for Standing) (1961), it would have been much improved with the inclusion of Morris’s sound piece Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961); a small wooden box with a concealed internal speaker that plays the sounds of Morris’s ongoing labor in crafting the sculpture. As such, the work suggests—in retrospect—a meta manifesto insofar as it evidences the means and methods of its own production; highlighting pace, process and potentiality by mixing the actual with the virtual.
Apparently La Monte Youngthree-and-a-half-hour sound track in one sitting—t has something of the noise music sound quality of Luigi Russolo’s Intonarumoris (1913) and has certain sonic similarities to 89 VI 8C. 1:42-1:52 AM Paris Encore from “Poem for Chairs, Tables, Benches, Etc.” (1960). I always wondered why Composition 1960 #10 to Morris—rather than Morris dedicate his year-later Box with the Sound of Its Own Making to Young. The score of Composition 1960 #10 (to Bob Morris), which reads: “Draw a straight line and follow it,” was famously Regardless, Morris’s Blank Form (1962) graphic text piece should have now, following Morris’s passing, been included in The Perceiving Body so as to fill a hole in the art history of conceptual-minimalism. Originally created for Young’s and Jackson Mac Low’s proto-Fluxus artists’ book publication An Anthology of Chance Operations, it, and its companion graphic-texts, were pulled by Morris out of the project before the book was assembled. I know Young has a box containing those pulled pages, because I archived it.
Also missing from the beginning of the show is the Passageway (1961) dead end structure—where viewer-participants become constricted in a tight 50-foot-long plywood corridor—and Card File (1962), where Morris chronicled its own making through a series of typewritten texts on cards indexed alphabetically in a metal box. All crucial auto-omissions.
Rather than flushing out the more pertinent viractual/potential/propositional qualities of Morris’s total achievement relevant to current post-conceptualism, Morris/Weiss put the emphasis on physical encounters with looming marooned objects that engage space as affective form. Though I am generally attracted to installations of interconnected enmeshment, here empty space—a primary if easily overlooked constituent of exhibitions—produces some powerful effects: intensifying the flavor of the object cadences that proceed and follow it. But by starting the self-cherry-picked show off with Untitled (3Ls) (1965), typical of Morris’s period of Puritan minimalism—a movement brought to broad attention in the survey exhibition Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1966—no self-critique awareness of the American materialist world-view is offered. 3Ls features three L-shaped forms constructed from plywood and painted gray lying on their side or standing upright. The cross spot lighting here creates some engaging visual effects, but the key to enjoying walking among them is that they are at once ontologically obvious and shifty. The admitted mild pleasures of this purification ritual, visibly elegant and beautiful to anyone willing to really look at it, also reminds us that much was lost by the reductionist modern stampede. The feeling it provides is like drinking a clean glass of pure mineral water with an aged gigolo. It generates little in juicy bodily response. This is especially true of Untitled (Pine Portal with Mirrors) (1961/1978), a cheesy Ikea-like mirrored door form, and the worn out looking Untitled (Fiberglass Frame) (1968). To take the production design bull by the horns: Untitled (Mirrored Cubes) (1965/1971) is amiable but insipid, Untitled (Quarter-Round Mesh) (1967/1986) tries too hard in its op art over-insistence on a visual-cognitive encounter, while Untitled (Ring with Light) (1965-66/1993) looks like a gag techno-DJ booth. These works have visual characteristics of what I think of as comedic modernism.
Not so Untitled (Portland Mirrors) (1977), a magnificent, euphoric arrangement of mirrors and freshly cut timbers that creates mysterious illusions of imaginary virtual space by playing with the defeat of one-point perspective. It is agreeably clean but complex, defying not just dated high-low binaries, but also denying contemporary efforts to ascribe subversive intent to abstract art activity that is fundamentally pleasure-seeking. It reminds us that Morris served for a period in the Army Corps of Engineers. So Morris’s once arresting mid-60s minimalism—clean objects of slight desire demanding to be scrutinized with minimal returns—though an obvious historical precedent for current standards of male market merit—is also now a good lens through which to view the undercutting effects of austere abstraction on socially dependent art institutions. It is the perfect example of what Dave Hickey has called the art of Aryan muscle men: hard abstract art made by white male artists who bend the multitudinous qualities of art to serve the goals of stern, humorless, moral-aesthetic, critical-cultural-elite demi-deities of the academic Northeast corridor of the United States. You know who: all those who squeeze the joyful sexy beauty and imaginative titillation out of making and discussing art. As a result, Morris suffers as an example of the academic-bourgeois tradition of detached, passionless ‘quality’—and this show does little to emolliate that cliché. The one piece that does do that, that rips the show open with ecstasy—rather than cold quality—is the process-based masterpiece mêlée Untitled (Scatter Piece) (1968-1969/2009). On loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, this equal measures of soft felt and metal bits are scattered around in flamboyant fashion, as they were placed and fabricated according to the strategic chance operations of the composer John Cage. It contains 200 elements, half made from six kinds of metal and half from industrial felt, and is a classic of theatrical sensuality. This sensuality is true too of the pleasurable gallery containing four huge industrial felt pieces from the mid-1970s.
The compound of abstract shapes that is Scatter Piece creates something like a memory lane. As such, it suggests a bit of Morris’s conceptually diverse and wide-ranging work (already a convoluted tale) with the mnemonic episodic structure of a fight or party or fever dream. It is both playful and graceful and enticing in its chaotic allover non-structure. This swashbuckling immersion into the expanded field is an experience of entering into the art of visual noise. It beautifully complicates the figure/ground clarity of Morris’s earlier unitary objects, like 3Ls, because it functions in a much more painterly way. As such, it is exhilarating and invigorating in its display of an excess that fosters a more active mode of sinuous vision. Though grounded in materialism by ontological necessity, this viractual vision is one capable of lifting off into gorgeous flights of lyricism. WM
Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.view all articles from this author